By Justin Gibson, BS, CPT, CSCS
About a week ago, I made the foolish mistake of standing up after stretching, and strained something in my lower back. Any slight flexion of my spine felt like getting stabbed with a screwdriver, and standing for any length of time beyond about thirty seconds was an exercise in self-torture. The pain was intense, immediate, and, as it turns out, very relatable to just about everyone old enough to pump their own gas.
Injuries happen. In the gym, they’re very often avoidable with proper technique and supervision, but even the best prevention measure can only reduce -rather than eliminate- the likelihood of an injury. Outside the gym, sometimes you just bend or pull or step the wrong way. Everyone gets hurt occasionally, but with proper planning and structure there’s no reason all of the hard work you’ve been putting in at the gym has to come to a screeching halt.
Disclaimer: this article is meant to give you ideas to exercise around an injury. It is not a substitute for treatment from a qualified physical therapist. I saw Michael and Megan after I hurt my back, and you should too.
When dealing with any sort of movement-related pain, it’s tempting to stop working out entirely. Depending on the severity, sometimes this is even the wisest course of action. However, most strains and sprains are minor enough to train around without further risk to the affected area. In fact, exercise is often vital to a quick and effective recovery.
Instead of viewing a trip to the gym as a deterrent to recovery, instead look at your workout as a way to:
-Promote blood flow. Recovery is aerobic in nature. Getting increased blood flow to the affected area is important for speeding up the healing process, and a few minutes on the elliptical will do just the trick with the added benefit of….well, cardio.
-Strengthen surrounding muscle groups. Often a strain or sprain was just a symptom of a weakness above or below the source of injury. For example, straining something in your knee could have been the result of your knee collapsing inward because the hips were too weak to prevent it. A qualified physical therapist or personal trainer can help you determine what muscles you should pay attention to for specific injuries.
-Hone technique. The later stages of the recovery process can be a great time to lighten weights and work on technique. If you pulled or strained something while exercising, there’s a good chance your form was off. Find a trainer to teach you the proper positioning for the exercise in question, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
-Work on everything you haven’t injured! Ceasing your workouts when you’ve got a minor injury is like forgoing all household chores because the basement’s flooded. Yes, you’ve got an issue that needs addressing, but there’s no need to let everything else suffer as a result.
How do you know what exercises are appropriate? Just consult the following flow chart:
A bit simplified, yes, but the short answer is that your injured area will let you know if what you’re doing isn’t good for it. If it hurts during or immediately after an exercise, stop. No matter how safe you think the exercise is or how absolutely textbook perfect your form, this exercise is not going to work. Conversely, if an exercise doesn’t hurt (even if logic dictates that it should), then you’re free to keep going…within a degree of common sense.
If you hurt something in your upper body, train your lower body.
If you hurt something in your lower body, train your upper body.
If you hurt one side, train the other.
If you hurt your back, choose exercises and machines that don’t stress your spine.
I’ll use myself as an example. Any type of squatting motion hurts, as does any forward bending of the spine. So, I found four exercises I could do that didn’t bother my back and allowed me to train my lower body and abs:
You should never push through pain when you’ve injured yourself. You’re not getting any of the benefits the exercise would have provided, and you’re only going to delay your recovery. But there are thousands upon thousands of movements to choose from in the gym, and odds are a good bunch of them are still effective without compromising your recovery.
For more information about exercise-related pain and what you can do about it, there are few better sources than our physical therapy department here at Body Structure.
Justin is a personal trainer at Body Structure Medical Fitness in Lexington, Kentucky